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get out (jordan peele, 2017)

Prior to this film, Jordan Peele was known mainly for Key & Peele, the skit-comedy he worked on with Keegan-Michael Key. Get Out is only funny on the margins. It is, in fact, a horror film, and is Peele's first time in the director's chair. It tells the story of Chris, a black man with a white girlfriend who is going to her home to meet the family.

The horror mechanics help Get Out achieve a general popularity, and I suppose it could be treated as a simple genre enterprise. But that would be selling the film short. For Peele offers his story from a specific perspective, in this case, that of a black man in America. This adds a layer of satire to the genre conventions. But Peele wants to go deeper. He is using the horror genre to show us what life is like for black men. The horror comes not only from the science-fictiony story, but from the way Get Out exposes the undercurrents within which African-Americans must deal with that most dangerous of enemies, the white liberal.

Peele has said he was worried about the box office potential for Get Out. "I thought, ‘What if white people don’t want to come see the movie because they’re afraid of being villain-ized with black people in the crowd? What if black people don’t want to see the movie because they don’t want to sit next to a white person while a black person is being victimized on-screen?’" His concerns were well-taken, but ultimately, Get Out was too good to be stopped. Made for under $5 million, Get Out grossed more than $250 million worldwide, and inspired countless Internet memes, arguably the primary way today to prove something has entered the public consciousness. 

Get Out also has one of the highest ratings on the critical compilation site, Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Only two of 289 reviewers gave the movie a negative review, and one of those was still 3 out of 5. (The one truly negative review came from Armond White, whose piece was titled, "Return of the Get-Whitey Movie".)

I'm reminded of what Issa Rae, the creator of the fine series Insecure, said. "In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes. ... I want to be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture ... I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come."

I was also struck by something that arrived today in my inbox. In her newsletter, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote:

So often when we talk about diversity, we talk about it in terms of identification. People are starving to see themselves represented on the page and the screen; they’re desperate to hear their stories told. All of this is absolutely true, and it’s inexplicably dumb that the entertainment industry doesn’t seek to capitalize on the obvious market represented by this hunger. And representation can obviously have good, affirming effects on people who feel that their lives and their experiences are affirmed when they’re reflected back at them.

But this isn’t the whole story, nor is it the entire case for telling new and previously marginalized stories in mass culture. People who are already fulsomely represented also have a lot to gain by getting access to new stories. Pop culture is one window into the world around us, to places and to communities that may not be geographically proximate or readily accessible for other reasons. When you’re overwhelmed by your own thoughts or worries, it can be immensely valuable to immerse yourselves in dilemmas or perspectives that have nothing to do with our own, if only as a temporary relief.

There are times that this sort of curiosity can veer over into tourism, or into a pornography of someone else’s suffering. But that’s a case not against cross-cultural and cross-community inquisitiveness, but for more fizzy Asian and Asian American romances like “Crazy Rich Asians,” more epic love stories like “Exit West,” more experimental and deeply felt portraits like “Moonlight.” Pop culture should provide us all with recognition and escape. It can’t do that for everyone if all pop culture is the same.

When Issa Rae says she writes for her friends and family, she isn't saying she wants her audience limited to the people she writes for. She wants a place in the culture, but wants to make that space out of her own experiences, not those of others.

Get Out plays with the usual tropes of horror movies, but the subtext is practically the text. The essential horror of Get Out lies in the dangers for black Americans trying to maneuver their way through the dominant white culture.

Peele has said his title was inspired by an Eddie Murphy routine in Delirious:

The humor in the sketch lies in the ways white people are blind about the signs that a situation is dangerous. As Murphy says, if a house told him to get out, he'd get out. What makes Get Out so effective, though, is that even though Chris is well-aware of the realities in his situation, it takes him forever to get out, because it's hard even for Chris to realize how deep this evil goes. And once he falls into the "Sunken Place", it seems impossible to ever escape. At one point, Peele tweeted, "The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us."

Get Out refuses to be silent. 9/10.


creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


music friday: solo lou reed in the 70s

I had a serious Lou Reed obsession in the 1970s. Saw him several times, the first being in late 1974 on the Sally Can't Dance tour (a show I wrote about here) ... I think the last time I saw him was in 1989. Some of this was lingering Velvets love. I'd been a fan of theirs since the first album, but I was 13 when it was released and living on the other coast, so my love of the band came from their records (and their infrequent appearances on FM radio), not because I lived the life or saw them in concert. My favorite of his 70s albums was Coney Island Baby. I had a homemade Coney Island Baby t-shirt ... my wife made it for me:

Coney island baby

When we were first married, we had a hand-me-down record player ... I think it only played mono, and the stylus was awful, so it probably ruined a lot of vinyl. I played Berlin over and over, then I played Rock and Roll Animal over and over ... after that, we might have finally gotten a good stereo. Once we started going to see his shows in earnest, I saw him a couple of times at Berkeley Community Theater (Rock and Roll Heart tour and New York tour), and a couple more times at the Old Waldorf, a showcase club where you could buy "dinner seats" and sit right up against the stage ... it was then that Robin decided Lou's hands looked like her grandfather's from Iowa. I especially liked the band that turns up on Take No Prisoners. I'm not a big fan of the album, but the band sounds like my memories of a Lou Concert. I never saw the Velvets, and I never saw the great band with Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders (although Fernando was in the band for several of the shows we saw), so I'm sure I missed the best, but that late-70s band as good.

Here are six Lou songs from the 70s. I'll give a special shoutout for the last three. "Coney Island Baby" remains my favorite Lou Reed Solo track ever, for the way his voice breaks at the end as he says "Man I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you." "Temporary Thing" feels like a lost classic to me ("Where's the number, where's the dime and where's the phone?"). And "Street Hassle" is his magnum opus ... even has an appearance by Bruce Springsteen.

You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice
To talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing that they see
That allows them the right to be
Why they follow it
You know, it's called bad luck

 


game seven

I was going to wait until the final game of the World Series to write this, but there's no reason for that, so here goes.

In the arts, the audience might disagree about the quality of a work ... you know, taste preferences ... and certainly, when we walk out of a theater, for instance, our mood will be affected by what we've seen. But in most cases, there is no heartbreak, unless the work has purposely elicited such a response.

It's not like that with spectator sports. The audience for a sporting event consists of two groups of fans who are supporters of one of the teams/athletes, with a third group of "neutral" fans. The three groups are looking for different things. The supporters want their representatives to win, which sets them on opposite sides from each other. The neutrals just want "a good game".

This is especially obvious during the most noteworthy, "historic" games. Giants fans remember the 1962 World Series as one of heartbreak. Just ask Charles Schulz, who loved the Giants and who ran two separate Peanuts comics about the last out of that World Series. You see, the Series ended when Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit a line drive that was caught by the second baseman for the Yankees. Two months later, in Peanuts, Charlie Brown despairs. "Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?" After another month, another strip: "Or why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball even two feet higher?" There was a work stoppage in baseball in 1981, and the Giants' radio station broadcast the radio recording of that game, only, without telling us, they edited the audio of that last play so McCovey's line drive got past the defense, giving the Giants the World Series. I remember listening to this and just about crying. (It was another 29 years before the Giants finally won the World Series in real life.)

Giants fans remember the 1962 World Series as a bad one. Yankee fans think about it with joy, if they remember it at all (they won a lot in those days). The neutral fan probably thought it was a minor World Series, known as much for the bad weather as anything else. (The next time the Giants played in a World Series, there was an earthquake.)

In the 2002 World Series, the Giants were in the driver's seat, with a 3 games to 2 lead over the Angels, and a 5-run lead in Game Six. Disaster struck (from a Giants fan perspective), the Angels came back to win the game, and then won Game Seven and the World Series. Angels fans remember that Series with joy ... it was their team's first championship. Neutral fans remember it fondly as well ... it was a classic. But that Series haunted Giants fans for at least 8 years.

The Giants finally won a few Series. In 2014, they went to Game Seven against the Royals, trying to win their third Series in five years. A legendary performance by Madison Bumgarner gave the Giants the win, with the Royals leaving the tying run on third base as the game ended. It's one of the great moments in Giants fan history, and it will always be remembered by neutral fans as one of the great Series games. But Royals fans hated that game. I know some Royals fans, and I admit, I was happy for them when their team won the World Series the next year.

Pick a sport, and the above is true. In the 1994 World Cup final, Brazil and Italy played 120 minutes without either team scoring. The great Italian player Roberto Baggio missed a crucial penalty, and Brazil were the champions. I'm sure Brazilian fans were happy with that victory, just as I'm sure Italian fans have never forgotten Baggio's miss. The neutral fan? Well, 120 minutes of scoreless soccer isn't likely to be remembered as a great match.

Spectator sports have winners and losers. A great movie or song or painting makes winners of us all. But not sports.

As I type this, the Astros lead the Dodgers, 5-0, in the final game of the 2017 World Series. Some neutral fans are saying this has been one of the greatest World Series of all time, and when tonight's game is finished, those fans will remember these games with fondness. The fans of the winning team, whoever that will be, will never forget this Series. Neither will the fans of the losing team. But they'll wish they could forget. I remember when Kirk Gibson hit that famous home run off of Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 Series. Eckersley was my favorite player, and Gibson's Dodgers were my most hated team. It was bad enough that Gibson hit the homer. But as he rounded the bases, I knew immediately that I'd be seeing that damn thing the rest of my life. It was too good of a moment, a moment that Dodger fans and neutral fans alike can still get excited about. And sure enough, whenever you see highlights of baseball's post-season, there's Kirk Gibson, rounding the bases. Makes me want to puke, every time I see it.

Sometimes, I wish I was a neutral fan. I'd be spared the heartbreak. But then I remember 2010, when the Giants finally won the World Series after being in San Francisco for 52 years, and I'm not sorry I have a rooting interest.